Ordinary Unhappiness

I got acquainted with the American author David Foster Wallace while I was in Rome looking for The Savage Detectives by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. The Chilean’s book was sold out, so the friendly girl working at the bookstore said I should try this one instead as she passed me Infinite Jest. I bought the book, and two others, and, perhaps three years later, I finished the book (and most of his other stuff). 

That event in Rome took place in 2008, a few months after Wallace’s suicide. I mentioned this story because, for several years, I have thought about writing about the philosophy of DFW, but now I don’t have to. Writer, journalist, and the founding editor of The Point, Jon Baskin, has written an admirable book called Ordinary Unhappiness: The Therapeutic Fiction of David Foster Wallace. In this book, he illustrates how Wallace’s fiction is an encounter with various ways of doing philosophy. 

Baskin is not the first to explore the universe of Wallace through a philosophical lens. For instance, of noteworthy mention is Marshall Boswell’s Understanding David Foster Wallace, published in 2003; however, due to the time of publication, this work didn’t cover all of Wallace’s fiction. Furthermore, Baskin deals solely with Wallace’s fiction, showing not only the philosophical quality of literary critics but also—and more importantly—how fiction at times can be regarded as philosophy. 

Philosophy for Baskin is not just a method “exposing logical fallacies”. “There is not,” as Ludwig Wittgenstein writes in Philosophical Investigations, “philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies.” (p. 5–6). 

To explain what he means by this crucial concept of “therapeutic”, Baskin relies on the two philosophers Stanley Cavell and Robert Pippin and their reading of Wittgenstein “… therapeutically, criticism—in both Cavell’s and Pippin’s hands—is concerned with what has kept us from seeing what is right on the text’s surface. It seeks to expose not something hidden in the work of art but something we have hidden from ourselves” (p. 35). 

The problem being addressed is not something to be found in the text but in ourselves, in our form of life, our approach, or relationship with the text. Therefore, the philosophical or literary therapy of Wallace is not concerned with answers but “aimed at helping us see the senselessness of our questions” (p. 78). The problems in life should not be treated like the questions at a quiz-show. Instead, by exploring our approach toward life (or a text), we might become aware or conscious about the fragile and temporary position we speak or see from, as if our position were closer to the truths. Another way of illustrating this is by stressing Wallace’s wish to overcome the stereotypical academic debate between solid positions: position A oppose position B and so forth; rather, Wallace brings the reader out into the open, naked or without his or her academic amour, in a kind of constantly emerging pre-position where the point is not to debate who is right; rather to recognize “problems as different, your world if different,” as Cavell is quoted as saying (p. 78). 

If I should have one critique of Baskin’s exemplary study, it would be to unfold the relationship between philosophical therapy and ethics even further. By seeing ethics not as a predefined normative program or as something transcendent or abstract but as an immanent way of living a lifestyle. Other interesting studies about Wittgenstein are James C. Edwards’ Ethics Without Philosophy (1982) and James F. Peterman’s Philosophy as Therapy (1992). For example, by linking thinking to living and vice versa, a philosophical therapy makes us see new possibilities or forms of life. The therapeutic—philosophical or literary—doesn’t, therefore, refer to a process of normalizing, that is to say, by telling or showing us what to think, feel, do, or live; rather, it aims at making everything more real, not by explaining but unfolding. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, I might say that philosophical work is transformative in the sense that the world of the person who has read Infinite Jest is different from that of one who has not. Hereby, I don’t make a moral judgement but a literary or philosophical one.

One of the problems of our time, according to Wallace, is related to how we think, i.e., how we relate to the world. The argument goes like this: the same kind of thinking that creates a problem can’t overcome it—the problem is part of our way of seeing, thinking. 

As Baskin writes, “For Wallace, the separation of philosophy from literature—and the crude dichotomies often correlated with the separation: mind/body, theoretical/practical, intellectual/emotional—are both a cause and a symptom of a ‘dis-ease,’ as he calls it in Infinite Jest, at the heart of modern and postmodern self-consciousness. Bringing philosophy and literature together becomes the precondition for even being able to see—much less to address or “treat”—the many symptoms of this dis-ease in our everyday lives and in ourselves.” (p. 4).

There is a quote from Infinite Jest that, in my opinion, might illustrate the goal of Wallace’s work and clarify this even further. “But what of the freedom-to? Not just freedom-from. Not all compulsion comes from without. You pretend you do not see this. What of freedom-to. How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose? How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose?” 

Freedom does not refer to an irresponsible adolescent or immature “I can-do-want-I want- attitude; rather it is to be bound by the right strings—those that make sense. Baskin writes that Wallace want us—the readers—“to value verbal honesty over empty cleverness” (p. 72); Wallace wants “to help us see the connection between psychological suffering and our habits of thought,” (p. 38). What Wallace is asking for; however, is not for someone to tell us what to choose or think, rather how to choose and how to think. In his commencement speech, Wallace talks about paying attention to live consciously in order to take more beneficial decisions in life. Another way of saying this is the way in which the “love-filled” parent or guide could help the child see the world more clearly or, as Wittgenstein says, in “clarity”, to bring peace to mind. 

Henceforth, the disease of today—“our philosophical problem (p.131)—is related to adolescence, a philosophical immatureness as when we hide between clever identities or ideals, instead of trying to think ourselves. “That maturity requires wisdom,” writes Baskin, a wisdom we can see being outlined in Wallace’s last unfinished work The Pale King. In this last novel, Wallace reactivates some of that ideas that formed his Infinite Jest; for example, the philosophy of freedom, the AA-session, and how addiction infects our will—“addicted to thinking, meaning they have a compulsive and unhealthy relationship with their own thought,” writes Wallace in Infinite Jest

A part of maturing or becoming wise has to do with “being an uncomplaining adult, who suffers the indignities of life without making too much of them.” (p.129). Not as a kind of resentment or passive nihilism, rather as an acceptance or, as the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze defines ethics, as “not being unworthy to what happens to us”. It is also this understanding that makes the titles of Baskin’s book meaningful as well as beautiful. The goal is never to solve all the problems in life—how could we even live our life without encountering problems—but rather, to quote Freud through Baskin, “if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness” (p. 19).

Baskin succeeds in making sense of why Wallace’s task mattered so urgently for him and why it might matter to us. Like all good art, it’s about life and death, about what it means to be a human being, about teaching us how to think. 

No user’s guide can help those who still haven’t read Infinite Jest and The Pale King. No one becomes a chef in the kitchen by reading cookbooks; they become one only by crying while cutting the onions and sweating while frying the mushroom. Baskin, I believe, would agree to this when it comes to understanding Wallace’s fiction; and even if by thinking with, through, or against him, there can be no substitute for reading his work in all its difficulty, and, at times, boredom. 

Wallace’s work is a diagnose and not a cure for our world; he helps us see that stress, burnout, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc., shouldn’t be regarded as individual diagnoses. Rather, it a diagnosis of a social structure or underlying governmental neoliberal ideology that is sick; “to live today is simply to be subject to such breakdowns.” Similarly, if we are just “doing our jobs” as in the great bureaucratical excuse (p.58), then perhaps our society is evil (Arendt). 

Baskin’s book is, of course, relevant and insightful to all readers of Wallace, both literary critics and laypeople, but the book is also relevant for students of philosophy with an interest in philosophical or literary therapy as something other than psychological therapy. 

I highly recommend this book.

First published in Metapsychology, Vol. 24, No. 27